Published: February 24th 2011January 12th 2011
Cultural centre in Vientiane.
The sleeper bus wasn't too bad. That's not to say that it was amazing but... it wasn't too bad. The double beds weren't exactly roomy but there was
a little curtain and some complimentary snacks. So far so good. We weren't so enamoured with the group who came onto the bus with cases of beer, sat up the back and talked loudly to each other about how 'out of it' they were gonna be once they 'popped the valium'. Call them Bangkok tourists
- an altogether different set of travellers than we tended to meet in south Asia. Still, things were moving along and we were making an attempt at sleep when it happened - the sickening thud of big things colliding. A period of swift deceleration was followed by much confusion, apprehensive glances and futile conjecture. Amidst the chaos, Ben had another concern - the need to pee. Climbing out over the driver's seat (the main door was jammed shut and a bit mangled, as was much of the front of the bus) he did so and then noticed a long smear of blood running along the side of the vehicle. Cue feelings of dread as he walked back along the
The Thai approach to buddhist temples.
road to where the bus staff stood, talking quickly and looking down on...
The stricken buffalo was enormous, and dying. It had apparently been making it's ponderous way across the road when we came hurtling out of the darkness - a massive object of death. As the onlookers looked on, the poor thing tried to lift it's head, but as it's neck gave way it came crashing back down into the dirt. It's laboured breathing was raspy and uneven and the thing was obviously - and mercifully - in shock.
Turning and walking away from the buffalo felt wrong, but no more so than standing around gawking at it. We can only hope that it died quickly, before coming out of it's stupor. Our bus was trashed and there was a 2 hour wait on a replacement. Much to everyone's surprise, the new bus did
turn up 2 hours later. The gruesome incident had produced a small sliver of silver lining, in the form of a slightly longer bed. The party kids took their valium like good little boys and girls, and we passed the rest of the night actually sleeping. Vientiane
is official 'capital city' of
...which also sells everything else!
Laos, but in reality it's more like a 'capital big town'. Our first thought was 'this is nice'. All of the 'western' trimmings were here in abundance with trendy cafés, bars and boutique shops lining up along the clean-swept pavements. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot
of expats here and our second thought was 'that wouldn't be a bad life...' Accomodation was expensive here ($12! Outrageous) but the extra expense was partially justified with the inclusion of breakfast, which consisted of a little heart-shaped fried egg, toast, rice, vegetable curry, a fruit plate and coffee. Yep, life was good in Vientiane! Condensed milk would have made it perfect but... it's hard to complain, given everything else.
Our first tourist stop was the National History Museum
which - as the name implies - is dedicated to the history of Laos and it's people, with a disproportionate chunk given over to the history and revolution of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party
. Of course, while the dinosaur bones and ancient pottery were nice enough, this is where the action happens and we greatly enjoyed following the fortunes of the patriotic LPRP and their band of freedom fighters
against the cowardly imperialists
Orange monks walking by the dried up riverfront in Vientiane.
(Thai and South Vietnamese forces). Of all the displays on...display, we found the most rousing to be that of the rifle used by a patriotic old peasant woman
to take down one of these
. These example links seem to tell their own story, but we found the curator's optimism to be somewhat charming.
After the museum, we took a stroll through a big market where we found a guitar! Having tried a couple of examples (one of which sort of fell apart while being tuned) Ben forked out about £18 and walked away with an instrument that didn't sound amazing but was at least playable and stayed in tune for several minutes at a time. It's awesome. Being too cheap to buy a pick (you wouldn't believe the prices...tut tut) he made do with a plastic toothpick until a traveller we'd met a week before showed up, gifted one of his own picks and promptly dissapeared again in search of a guesthouse. It must have been pre-ordained somehow...
While strolling around the city the following day we had another nom
(condensed milk) related revelation. Nom also works on bread. In fact, munching away on a
Freshly carved statues.
freshly-toasted baguette spread with the stuff is a beautiful thing indeed, and we did quite a bit of it in the following weeks. We had a second culinary celebration later that day when - after stopping for a streetside beer and meeting not one but two professional cage fighters
- we hit an Italian joint said to have "The best pizza in SE Asia" by one trip advisor user. It was particularly fine as we'd spent the previous weeks subsisting mostly on noodles.
With that done, it was time to move on to: Vang Vieng
. Unquestionably the top Laotian destination for those 'Bangkok tourists' - in fact we suspect that many cross the border just to spend a few days in this bizzare slice of rural Laos. It's notorious as a centre for debaucherous, party-going westerners - a sort of 'paradise lost' into which responsible tourism has yet to make any inroads. A cultural black hole
. It's not our usual scene but is is
on the road north and we wanted to break up the journey a bit.
On the first night we watched in fascinated horror as a loaded tuk tuk
rolled past and we noticed
I am Vegetarian
K's invaluable travel tool.
that a pair of swimwear-clad tourists were getting it on
up on the roof! The first question was 'what the hell do the locals make of this?' but looking around, one can see that most couldn't care less - business is booming in Vang vieng and in a town where every shop is a tourist shop - some run communally - it doesn't seem
to be just a small minority who reap the financial rewards.
Why Vang vieng? The sole reason for it's place on the tourist map is called Tubing
. Tubing, is basically floating down the river in a tyre tube and it's something one can do all over south-east Asia, or probably the world. It's not quite like that here, as whole sections of the river are lined with crazy-assed bars offering free alcohol (amongst other things), beach volleyball and rope swings into the river. The idea is that as you float along, a guy will throw out a rope and you're pulled in to the bar where you'll presumably spend a small fortune while partying hard. Some people even walk their tubes to the first bar and so hardly see the river at all!
A quick snap out of the minivan window en-route to Vang Vieng
also touches on the darker side of tubing. We visited an organic farm which runs a small guesthouse and volunteer programs with local children (and you can - and K did - get goat's cheese). The owner's daughter told us that a few years ago it was a tranquil place but you wouldn't know it today. With bars lined up right across the river there is a constant incomprehensible mess of competing stereos and drunken tourists. They even used to come over and urinate in the garden until her father let them use the toilets, which were promptly defaced. The situation between bar owners and farm-owners seems to be escalating but it seems doubtful that anything can stop the ever-increasing number of bars crowding the riverside.
There is more to Vang vien than just beer and Friends
re-runs, though both are available in abundance in any of the bars that fill the town. Adventure sports for one thing, and you can even just dissapear into the lush mountain landscapes for a day or two. One such slice of landscape encompasses the Xaisombun Special Zone
, an area that was until recently completely off-limits to foreigners. It was off limits because
A riverside bar in all it's glory.
it was host to a 30-year long guerilla campaign fought by CIA-trained Hmong
rebels (or freedom fighters - your choice), enlisted to help fight communist forces in Laos. A few years later, the Americans bailed out but the Hmong fought on, eventually being defeated in 2006, when the zone was officially disbanded and opened to outsiders. The XSZ still sees virtually no tourism because it doesn't contain anything of 'interest'... What it does
contain is a former US military base once dubbed the 'most secret place in the world'. From Long Chen
, bombing missions were flown over Vietnam and Laos - basically anywhere they thought communists might be hiding - and the training of local guerilla forces was undertaken. This sounded pretty interesting to Ben, who resolved to go and see it himself despite uncertaintly as to whether this was possible, or even likely.
The roads in the special zone are pretty crappy and mostly consist of red dirt, rocks or (usually) both. On the plus side, there was almost no traffic after the first few villages and the few vehicles I'd seen had mostly been Laotian army jeeps probably headed to the same place I was. They weren't
Sunset, Vang Vieng
Golden ball sinks behind the hills.
exactly 'all smiles' when they saw me but at least they hadn't kicked me out. I suspected that this might change as I neared Long Chen itself but had come prepared with a couple of crisp banknotes in case this should smooth things over along the way - you never know until you ask!
The track continued this way for a couple of hours as I passed through pristine jungle and the occasional tiny village, where I was regarded with incredulity by the locals. Eventually I came to what appeared to be a lake, where the road simply vanished into the water. Hmmm. Backtracking a little, I made a turn off and came to a small boat landing where a couple of small trucks were waiting to unload. I hadn't expected a boat trip and it occured to me that I might have taken a wrong turn somewhere...how far back was anyone's guess. I found an english-speaker who asked me where I was trying to go. This was a difficult question to answer given the presence of two soldiers, who were starting to take an interst in me as well.
"Phonsovan - the pain of jars" I replied.
Looking out over the Nam Ngum resevoir..."Anyone seen an airbase around here?"
rather touristy and lies a long way further up the road, on the other side of the 'special zone'. I thought this was pretty clever and planned to continue along the 'stupid tourist' path.
"Phonsovan? You can't get there this way. You should go back to Vientiane and take busses over there." Maybe I wasn't so clever after all. Keeping the soldiers in mind, I didn't really want to argue with him and again considered that I might be on the wrong track after all. I thanked him, nodded to the soldiers and turned around. When I was out of sight, I pulled over to ponder my next move. I jumped off the bike and apparently failed to put the stand down. I stepped away and watched in horror as this big, heavy dirt bike slowly tipped over in the sloping mud. After wasting a little energy on cursing, it took me about 5 minutes to get the thing back upright, at which point I noticed a broken mirror and a big dent in the fuel tank. Standing there, I experienced several moments of despair associated with unavoidable financial loss. GOD. DAMN. IT. With little to be done,
Ben heaving his way up 'sleeping wall'.
I continued my retreat in somewhat lesser spirits, finally coming to a junction.
The other road (a smooth new blacktop) didn't seem right. The place was supposed to be a secret after all... Later I found that I had
been on the right track the first time, but hadn't paid attention to the body of water that broke it up halfway along. For now though I was skirting high above a huge resevoir, dotted with tiny islands that used to be hilltops. It wasn't what I'd come for, but it wasn't bad! After being denied access to the hydroelectric complex itself I turned and pointed for home, not anticipating any further adventure. Sputter, sputter, silence
. How much fuel had I brought? Not enough! According to the roadside markers, the nearest town was still 12km away. This too was gonna cost me... In desperation I shook the bike and heard a little slosh slosh
inside the tank. It started! It ran a bit, it died. Still, repeated shaking of the tank got me the whole 12km to civilization and fuel - a small roadside shack of the kind dotted around the rural areas. That felt better.
Still, better things
were to come as I slunk back home and confessed to K that I'd banged up the bike. Looking through the day's pictures she queried "is that the dent?". It was
the dent, and the picture was from before
the fall. Lord be praised, it wasn't my fault after all. The broken mirror was, but this was dismissed with a little wave by the rental guy. Well spotted K!
This was also an oportunity for some rock climbing, which Ben signed up for with a local tour company. We've heard some pretty bad things about safety over here but happily these guys were competent and thorough as well as being good company. The group spent the day on nearby 'sleeping wall' negotiating tree roots and building up some serious forearm ache. All good fun though.
Karnit's day had been somewhat different and included an afternoon spent...tubing with some friendly British tourists we'd met earlier. Not being the rabble-rousing type, she had managed to stay relatively unaffected by the constant availability of drink and so had a unique inside view into the tubing phenomenon from a fairly sober perspective. The hilarity was endless, from 18 year-old norwiegens spouting freestyle
Looking for adventure
And getting lost. Sitting above the resevoir having packed in the search.
poetry to the elderly local barwoman rocking out as much as everyone else. Tubing had been a fun and surreal experience.
Our exit from Vang Vieng was made in a minibus, which we shared with the brits. The question of everybody's lips was 'could this guy possibly drive any slower?' Still, it gave us time to take in the stunning mountain scenery as we made our ponderous way north to Luang Prabang
. LP was expected to be quite a different place, known for it's myriad temples and other cultural relics. Onwards we go into the hills...
There are more photos below